Updated on 09.19.11

Frugality and the Idea of Work

Trent Hamm

This note from Phil left me thinking.

You often talk about “frugality by the hour” and mention the hourly rate for doing something frugal. Like you’ll say that you can earn $12 an hour if you make your own laundry soap.

I think that’s a really poor analogy. When I’m not at work, I don’t want to spend my free time earning more money. I want to spend it having a life. Maybe you enjoy spending your free time making laundry soap, but most people don’t.

The last time I made laundry soap, I literally made it during the commercial breaks while watching Fringe. I boiled the soapy water during a show segment, mixed things during the commercial break, and sat there watching the show while stirring the bucket full of soon-to-be laundry soap. It didn’t really eat up any devoted time at all, and it doesn’t have to for you, either.

Still, Phil brings up an interesting point that I think has more to do with perception than anything else. If you see some sort of frugal tactic broken down to how much you can save per minute or per hour of time invested in the tactic, our minds are drawn both to the reward and to the cost of the method.

Let’s take that laundry soap. If you can save $5 from making a bucket of it and that bucket takes fifteen minutes to prepare, you’re immediately balancing the $5 versus fifteen minutes of your time doing something you might not necessarily enjoy.

For some people, the $5 will be more valuable. For others, the fifteen minutes might be more valuable. It’s a judgment call.

Given that, though, I would suggest considering a few more things when making up your mind about a frugal task.

Can it be done while doing something else? A great example is what I mentioned above with the homemade laundry soap, made while watching Fringe. I would watch Fringe anyway. I just happen to be making homemade laundry soap while doing so, thus the fifteen minutes invested in the laundry soap basically disappears.

Can it be done in a group setting? One thing that I’ve seen families do together is that they’ll spend part of Saturday together working on projects, such as preparing a bunch of meals in advance or doing yard work projects. Not only does this get things done that need to get done, it also provides a great social setting. Have you ever considered spending a Saturday with friends making a bunch of freezer meals?

Can it be done as part of “family time”? For us, that usually means that we can incorporate the kids into the project. Some tasks work well for this and get the kids deeply involved, while others end up being more trouble than they’re worth. I generally find that, at least for our family, garden work goes very well with the involvement of the children, for example.

The idea behind all of this is that for us, frugality is simply a normal part of life. We don’t sit around trying to fill every hour with laborious and boring tasks that enable us to save six cents. That doesn’t benefit anyone.

Instead, we find frugal things that complement what we would already be doing in our life. The fact that it’s a great way to reduce our spending is just a kicker.

When we’re trying to decide what to do as a family, frugality is a part of that equation, but just as important is that it’s something we’ll all enjoy and that our children will get something out of that will help them grow in some fashion. Often, we can find things that do all of this, like working in the garden or making soap in the kitchen.

When we want to spend time with friends, why not spend several hours together making meals in advance or helping each other with projects? It’s a great chance to socialize and to help each other.

When we’re doing something for enjoyment, like watching a television show, is it possible to easily do something else that saves money? Sarah, for example, often crochets while we’re watching a show. I’ll do things like make laundry soap. We’re still doing fun things that we’d do normally, but we’re adding in something that will save us some nickels and dimes along the way.

Frugality isn’t our life. It’s simply something that complements life while opening up opportunities in the future.

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  1. Leah W. says:

    Totally off topic, but speaking of Fringe, I’d love to hear your theories for this season. I’m a HUGE fan of the show and have been watching since the first season. This season is the first time I literally have no idea (or even a guess) where the plot could possibly be going!

  2. Beth says:

    On the other hand, doesn’t every $10 saved represent a quantity of time that you can spend freely rather than work, to have the same end financial result? I can spend above my means and get a second job to cover bills/debt, or I can live frugally and enjoy my free time.

  3. valleycat1 says:

    #2 Beth – that only holds if you are spending above your income & need a second job, or if you are self-employed with income varying, depending on the # of hours you put in.

    Since I have a conventional office job that requires my presence x hours/day, occasionally saving a few bucks doesn’t add any free time to my life, and unless I’m meticulously tracking that saved $ and putting it aside somewhere, it has no real impact since those small amounts get absorbed in routine spending.

    And does anyone else wish Trent could come up with an example other than making his own soap?

  4. valleycat1 says:

    And, Phil, there’s a big difference between ‘saving’ $12/hour by making your own soap and ‘earning’ $12/hour by making your own soap. In the first instance, it means you simply free up $12 you already have, so you can use the $ elsewhere; in the 2nd instance, you’re saying you’ve actually made extra money to go in your pocket, which implies you’re selling the soap somewhere.

  5. Jonathan says:

    Valleycat – You could argue that saving $5 now reduces your need to work in the future, even if it has no direct impact on your present work situation. Since you can’t work less hours at your current job you could invest that extra $5, which combined with all of the other small savings you could invest should allow you to retire earlier than otherwise planned.

  6. valleycat1 says:

    #5 Jonathan – I’m aware of that, but realistically, do you actually put into savings every $ or $5 you save long the way? And once you’ve saved that $5 one month, do you continue putting it away every month in the future?

    I’m still not convinced saving a dollar randomly, even if that dollar is actually invested, is going to add up to much in the long run. $12/year x how many years would increase my retirement by how much?

  7. Jonathan says:

    No, I tend to not invest every dollar that I save, although I definitely should be doing so. My goal is to lower my expenses as much as possible, to lower my income needs as much as possible. For this reason frugality exercises are very beneficial to me.

  8. Courtney20 says:

    valleycat1 – $12/year x 30 years at 8% increases your retirement by $1630. Which, after inflation would buy you $558 worth of stuff. I could retire two days early. Personally, I’ll just buy my soap.

  9. Jules says:

    My mom is still harping at us for not having a dryer. I don’t know why…I do all of our laundry (hanging, sorting, putting away) during commercial breaks anyway.

    I don’t know how much money we’ve saved (though our energy company did send us a check for €400 in excess payments we’d made this year…although Karel has been dryer-less for more than a decade), and frankly, I don’t really care. The smell of dried-in-the-sun laundry simply cannot be bought.

  10. Katie says:

    I always find the hourly cost calculations for these things kind of misleading (for me) since they don’t factor in things like task-switching/transition time, shopping for the materials, and learning how to do actually do the stuff. All that stuff takes up time and mental energy beyond the time specifically devoted to making whatever-it-is. Not that that’s necessarily bad, if you’re enjoying the process, but it does change the pure cost to time ratio.

  11. Other Jonathan says:

    In response to Jonathan and valleycat1:
    For my wife and I, our general focus is to keep our expenses as low as possible all the time. We don’t have a savings goal – our goal is to minimize spending. Therefore, every extra dollar we earn goes directly to savings and then to investment.

  12. Johanna says:

    @Other Jonathan: “We don’t have a savings goal – our goal is to minimize spending.”

    I’m not going to go so far as to tell you not to do this – you can do whatever you want with your own money, for all I care – but it’s just not rational.

    I really do think there’s a tendency for people (including me, sometimes) to start thinking that frugality is inherently virtuous, and spending is inherently sinful, but it’s just not true. Frugality is a means to an end, a tool to help you get things that you want (where “things” here is used generally – they could be material things, experiences, abstract things like security or flexibility, or something like a big gift to a charity). It’s not an end in itself.

  13. Jonathan says:

    Courntney20, thanks for doing the calculations for us. If $558 in today’s dollars would only equal 2 days worth of retirement income for you, then that would equal $101k/annual income (again, in today’s dollars). For anyone planning to retire on significantly less the benefit is greater, of course. For someone planning to retire on 1/3 of that amount ($34k in today’s dollars) saving $12/year would allow them to retire 6 days early. Still not a lot, but increase that to $5 or $10 per month and the benefits start to become more apparent.

  14. valleycat1 says:

    #11 Other Jonathan – I agree with your position. My point is that few people who find some way to save a pittance on a given item are actually going to be putting that $ into savings. And they’re definitely NOT actually ‘earning’ $5 by doing so. The reduction in expenses or addition to savings is going to be indirect, at best, as someone above mentioned small savings can add up over time.

  15. Other Jonathan says:

    Johanna: I’m not saying we deprive ourselves – not by a long shot. We spend a fair amount on entertainment, travel, leisure, etc. But it’s targeted to the things that we know bring us the most joy for the cost. We don’t tend to buy “stuff” (at least, not on a whim) because it doesn’t bring us much joy beyond the first few days.
    All I’m saying is that rather than setting a “saving target” for a month and then spending what’s left, we simply spend as reasonably little as possible and save what’s left. I think this relationship with our finances helps us save and invest far more than we would otherwise, and with FAR less stress month to month.

  16. Courtney20 says:

    Jonathan – but it DOESN’T equal $101K in annual income. It equals $558 in today’s dollars for a lifetime of making your own soap. The extrapolation has already been done. You can’t extrapolate it again to annual income unless you spend the entire year making soap and ‘saving’ the money (and you’d have to be using a heck of a lot of soap).

  17. Courtney20 says:

    (Also – I don’t make that much money anyways, because you included weekends in your multiplication.)

  18. Angie says:

    Amy Dacyczyn of Tightwad Gazette fame claims that in fewer than 7 years her family saved almost $50,000, made purchases of almost $40,000, all on an income of under $30,000, all the while remaining debt-free.

    In fact, most of her books are comprised of ways to save on the small stuff!

    I’m SURE someone will want to nitpick I mean point out adjustments for inflation, etc. but I personally believe these small ventures are worthwhile.

  19. Kerry D. says:

    @8 and beyond–I couldn’t find Trent’s calculations of saving $12 per year. Given the cost of laundry soap, and the amount of dirty clothes that a family with several children generates, I imagine that the savings must be quite a bit higher.

    The ingredients to make laundry soap are inexpensive, the amount of soap used is usually less, and that’s comparing to something like $6-7 for a box/bottle of commercial laundry soap that runs 32 loads. (About a month’s worth of dirty clothes in our family, where we have about a load a day.)

    Savings of perhaps $50 a year in after tax dollars might not be earthshaking, but still adds up.

  20. JS says:

    Like most metrics, it doesn’t necessarily matter that hourly rate calculations don’t mean a lot in real life. It still provides you with information, especially if you’re using it for comparison purposes. But it only works provided you understand the underlying assumptions and flaws in the method and the data.

  21. Tom says:

    The hourly figure always confuses me, often because it’s presented by “skipping steps” in the math. But I also believe it’s misleading on its face. Trent didn’t “earn” $20 an hour nor did he save $20 an hour. He saved $5 making the soap and probably does it on some infrequent basis (going back to his post, he guess about $60/year). That, to me is a much better descriptor of what is going on – I spend x amount of time to save (ie, not spend) y amount of dollars.

  22. Telephus44 says:

    I agree that the hourly savings is often misleading when presented. The only value I find in using the hourly savings calculation is in comparing two frugal tasks – if I can save $5/hr making my own laundry soap, but $20/hr hanging my laundry to dry, then it makes more sense to hang my laundry than make my soap.

    But other than that, the hours “savings” is kind of useless. It’s not putting any real money in the bank account (I could make laundry soap for 10 hours a day, every day, but it wouldn’t pay my mortgage!). Also, most items DON’T take an hour. I rememer reading a ridiculously high “hourly savings” for washing ziploc baggies – like $100/hour – but I am never going to spend an entire hour washing ziplocs. I might spend all of 30 seconds. Trent only spends 15 minutes making laundry soap.

    I agree with the calculation, but I think it’s often misapplied. It’s like looking at the grocery receipt and seeing that I “saved” $50. It’s not what you “save,” it’s what you spend!

    I definitely want to give props to the “can it be part of family time” suggestion. One of the spending items we’re trying to cut down on is eating out, and I don’t particularly like cooking. However, when my 5 year old son “helps” out it makes it more enjoyable, I get to teach him about measuring things and healthy foods, sets a good example etc.

  23. Des says:

    Getting nitpicky – If you take out vacation time and weekends, $558 for two days is just under $70k per year, which also had to include medical/dental/vision/disability/life insurances. Accounting for those with my family’s numbers (assuming the kids are grown by retirement), that would leave about $56k pre-tax income (in today’s dollars). Sounds like a very reasonable goal retirement income to me.

  24. Courtney20 says:

    Des – let me say this again: the $558 has already been extrapolated out to retirement. You would actually have the equivalent of $558 in today’s dollars to spend when you retired. Not $56K or $101K or anything like that. $558 dollars. Hence me saying I could retire two days early because I “wouldn’t need” to work those last two days to earn that $558.

  25. lurker carl says:

    By repairing and rebuilding stuff around the house myself, I save on labor charges and material markups. I’m not earning $80 per hour by replacing the sump pump or repairing a string trimmer, I’m just not spending $80 per hour for someone else to do it for me.

    Frugality isn’t about making money, it’s about not spending your money needlessly.

  26. Becca says:

    The idea about calculating the hourly value of a frugal task is really just meant to illustrate which tasks are most worth your time to do. It happens that some frugal ideas have high social acceptance, but actually save very little per hour. An example of this is driving slower to save on gas. If I’m doing an eight hour drive, I can save by driving slower, but it takes me way longer to get to my destination. I might save just a dollar or two for the extra hour it takes for the trip. Conversely, some frugal ideas are routinely pooh-poohed because the savings is small each time you do that particular task. If it saves a dollar, then why bother? Well if the task saves a dollar and takes just a minute, then in theory that task is worth $60 per hour. Eventually you will do that task 60 times. Or, over the course of a day you might do many small tasks that each save you just a dollar and take just a minute.
    As for the things not factored in, such as learning time… when you figure how much you earn per year, do you figure in how much time and money it took you to go to college, and then reduce your hourly worth accordingly. Nope. Of course there is some learning time. But usually about ten times you do a task, you have figured out how to do it quickly.
    I contend that there is also time not figured into purchasing goods and services. In a prior post I wrote that it took me about ten minutes or less to make two quarts of fat-free yogurt. Many stores do not carry fat-free plain yogurt, and so I have often spent several minutes in the dairy section in a fruitless hunt for it. I live in a rural area, and so many frugal things I do are simply to save me a trip to buy something. Even if I combine errands, each errand takes time.
    Another factor not considered is that when you do a task to save money, you aren’t getting taxed for the savings. I don’t get taxed on the value of food I grow in my garden. But if I had to earn the money to buy those same vegetables. I might have to earn $130 to buy $100 worth of vegetables. This tax factor more than makes up for variables one might not think to figure in the the valuation of a frugal task.

  27. kristine says:


    I never pay more than 2.49 for laundry detergent for 32 loads. Arm and Hammer on sale, or Purex, of Great Value. Sometimes I pa only $2. When it is on sale, I buy enough for about 3 months, till it goes on sale again. So when I looked at the figures from long ago, I believe I would break even by making my own laundry soap!

  28. getagrip says:

    I think the original point Phil made was that going out of your way to do frugal things that could seem extreme to some to save a few bucks takes away time from “having fun” or “living life”. I think the point Trent made was a good one in that he doesn’t so much go out of his way to do something frugal, he makes it part of doing something else he’s going to do anyway and works it in without much effort. So specifically driving ten miles out of your way to go to a gas station that has gas at 5 cents less a gallon to save $1 a tank or so may technically be “frugal” but seems like overkill from a time/effort perspective. However, if that same gas station were ten miles away and on the way to work, getting your gas there is still frugal but now is not such a time or effort sink. Looking for those types of opportunities in your life and lifestyle makes more sense to me.

  29. Riki says:

    kristine — I agree that buying non-Tide laundry detergent on sale is much more time and cost effective than making your own detergent.

    I have 8 bottles of detergent purchased for $3 (or less) each. Based on current usage, I estimate they will last for 2.67 years. That’s:

    Current usage = 1 bottle every 4 months, or 3 bottles per year. My bottles will last 2.67 years.

    3 loads per week * 52 weeks * 2.67 years = 416.52 loads

    $24/417 loads = 5.8 cents per load.

    I’m ok with that. Using Trent’s estimation of 2.25 cents per load with his homemade detergent, I’m spending 3.55 cents more per load. Over 2.67 years, that’s a total increase of $14.80.

    Granted, I haven’t priced making my own detergent. But I think I’ll continue buying.

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